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An All-Grrrl Band at Heart

In true, independent Riot Grrrl fashion, the Sleater-Kinney trio is getting heard far and wide (No. 3 in Village Voice) without abandoning its community.

March 16, 1997|Richard Cromelin | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

For most bands, a No. 3 ranking in the prestigious Village Voice poll of the nation's rock critics would be an occasion for champagne toasts.

For a band that records for a tiny independent record company, it would be time to field the incoming offers from major labels and get the career on the fast track.

For Sleater-Kinney, whose album "Call the Doctor" finished right behind two 1996 powerhouses--Beck's "Odelay" and the Fugees' "The Score"--in the Voice's survey of last year's releases, the recognition carried a mixed message.

"I think it's really great that we're getting all this positive attention," says Corin Tucker, who will team with fellow singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss when the trio opens for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on Tuesday at the El Rey Theatre.

"The only thing that bothers me is, I feel like sometimes critics want to pull us out of our community and where we're coming from and treat us like we're some sort of exception. But I really think that where we're coming from as musicians and writers comes from our community of other women making music and other people making music outside the alt-rock mainstream."

A few years ago, that community had a catchy name--Riot Grrrl--and a radical feminist agenda with an aggressive, punk-rock attitude. Centered in Olympia, Wash., it was a volatile reaction against the sexism that young female musicians and fans saw tainting the punk and grunge scene. To Tucker and her friends, that sexism betrayed the liberating message of punk.

"It was really enraging to a lot of young women, and things just sort of exploded,' says Tucker, 23. "A lot of women got really inspired by each other, and [the group] Bikini Kill happened, and that inspired a whole generation of women, including myself."

Tucker, then 18, formed her first band, Heavens to Betsy, in the heart of that activism. Five years later she still sings the movement's praises and laments the way the media emphasized its surface aspects.

"The issues that Riot Grrrl was trying to deal with, albeit in a very unsophisticated way, were issues of rape and sexual abuse and being physically unsafe, which are extremely important issues for young women.

"So I think it was a really pathetic thing that the media decided they were gonna totally belittle all the Riot Grrrl stuff, instead of having a deeper critical analysis of it. It was unsophisticated and alienating to a lot of women, but there was also a lot going on within it that's really important for young women to deal with.

"There is still a lot of Riot Grrrl activism happening. But I think it was just terrifying to be dealing with the way the media sort of co-opted what we were doing. It was too much to handle."

With the movement's energy dispersing, Tucker began writing songs with Brownstein, from the band Excuse 17, and practicing at a space on a road near Olympia called Sleater-Kinney. That was the name they gave the band they formed with Australian drummer Lora Macfarlane during a trip to that country.

The trio recorded a sketchy first album, 1995's "Sleater-Kinney," for the Portland, Ore.-based independent Chainsaw Records. They returned last spring with "Call the Doctor," a searing collection of punk-plus. The album is spearheaded most frequently by Tucker's primal, wide-ranging wail and driven by Tucker and Brownstein's charged guitar interplay.

Also on Chainsaw, it has sold a minuscule 6,000 copies, but its impact was magnified by a sheaf of awe-struck reviews. Besides the Village Voice year-end nod for "Doctor," Sleater-Kinney is included in a list of music's 40 most vital artists in the current issue of Spin magazine.

The momentum figures to continue with the April 8 release of a new album, "Dig Me Out," recorded with Weiss, the group's newest drummer. It's on a larger independent label, Olympia-based Kill Rock Stars, and it adds a more accessible pop element to Sleater-Kinney's core sound.

"I definitely hope this record gets to more people than the last one. That would definitely be a goal for us," says Tucker, considering again the question of moving to a major label.

"But I think that the means to an end are just as important as the end, and if we're not doing something that we're completely comfortable with, then we're not gonna be making the music that we're completely comfortable with."

Why is the corporate music industry so alien to a band like Sleater-Kinney?

Says Tucker: "Just the way it exists, especially right now, it's like this intense capitalist market where they care about bands in only a very limited sense and for a limited time, and only for this very specific marketing ploy.

"We're extremely interested in having our records sold in the same stores that they are now, in mom-and-pop stores, and not alienating the people who have been there for us up to this point. It's just a really complex issue of how much there is to gain in comparison to how much control we might lose."

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